Natalie Livingstone: The Mistresses Of Cliveden (Hutchison)
Saturday 18 July 2015
Cliveden has become synonymous with the 1963 Profumo Affair, when 19-year-old Christine Keeler’s brief relationship with MP John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, and parallel liaison with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, caused a scandal that brought down the Conservative government. Profumo had first spotted Keeler emerging naked from the swimming pool at Cliveden, formerly an exclusive country house and currently a five-star hotel.
In 2011, Natalie Livingstone’s husband, a billionaire property developer, decided to lease Cliveden for use as a hotel, thus sparking in her a passion to find out more about the women in the portraits that lined the walls of the house. These women had been mistresses of the elegant residence during its 300-year history and included two countesses, a Princess of Wales, a Duchess and the first female MP to take a seat in the House of Commons.
In the 1660s, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II’s childhood friend, set about creating Cliveden as a luxurious country home on the Thames where he could carry on his notorious affair with Anna-Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, a renowned beauty who slathered boiled puppy fat on her skin. Buckingham duelled with Anna-Maria’s husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who died soon afterwards. Conveniently, Buckingham was absolved of killing the Earl, clearing the way for a happy life with Anna-Maria at Cliveden. However, thanks to the reverberations of the scandal their unmarried bliss didn’t last, and Buckingham and Anna-Maria were separated by an extraordinary order of parliament.
Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney, was mistress of the house from 1696 until her death in 1733. She was not a beauty – her nickname was Squinting Betty – but she was extremely bright and she continued Cliveden’s royal connections when she became the mistress of William of Orange, later William III. Although these women were at the centre of political machinations in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Livingstone’s portrayal of both women is sketchy and leans heavily on the histories of the men in their lives. This is by no means Livingstone’s fault; the lives of women at this time were considered less important than those of men and vital female correspondences and diaries were often not saved for future generations. In the absence of documentary evidence Livingstone refrains from speculating too much about the inner thoughts of these two women and so their true feelings about their turbulent lives remain tantalisingly out of reach.
Augusta, Princess of Wales, became the chatelaine of Cliveden from 1738-1751. She was married to Frederick, eldest son of George II, and Cliveden became one of the locations of their alternative court as Frederick goaded the parents he hated so much. Augusta loyally supported her husband’s feud but when Frederick died suddenly, she showed her mettle as she attempted to guide and protect the future George III, even at the cost of her own reputation.
By the time the Duchess of Sutherland took up residence in Cliveden in 1849, the original house and a replacement had both been destroyed by fire. Rebuilt again, only the colonnaded terrace survived from the Duke of Buckingham’s original design. The Duchess was a close friend to Queen Victoria who was often at Windsor, a mere five miles away. Through the Queen’s copious diary entries and letters between the two women a clear picture of the Duchess emerges. She was a lively woman who spoke out against slavery, which some of her contemporaries thought was rather ill-judged. The considerable Sutherland fortune was built on the back of harsh Highland Clearances instituted by her mother-in-law but the Duchess continued her campaign regardless.
Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in parliament, continued Cliveden’s reputation as a hothouse for political and cultural discussion when she took up residence in 1906. She entertained luminaries ranging from Gandhi to Charlie Chaplin, Amy Johnson to T E Lawrence. Astor disliked sex so much that she bit on an apple in order to distract herself from the unpleasantness, a stark contrast to the first two ladies associated with the house.
Livingstone’s writing lacks stylish flourishes but, given the complex historical data she has to impart, this is not a fatal flaw. Anyone hoping for a book full of sexual romps, however, will be sorely disappointed. This is a serious examination of the lives and times of some very privileged women over the last four centuries.